Italian Trulli Philippe Barbe

Image of various media
credit: Alexander Ant on Unsplash

Should you hire a professional Mathematician?
Part 4: why working for your company?

by Philippe Barbe
19 May 2021

As described in part 1 on this series of articles, the work of a professional mathematician is very different than what most people think. It relies on skills that go far beyond the obvious one of being good at math. As indicated in parts 2 and 3, these skills are not only highly transferable, but also highly valuable.

If your company doesn’t have particular mathematical problems, why would a professional mathematician work for you?

This question goes both ways: why would you need a professional mathematician to work for your company? Why would a professional mathematician be interested in working for your company?

Why would you need a professional mathematician to work for your company?

The obvious answer is because I have a mathematical problem! But this is not what this series of articles is about. I am discussing what mathematicians can bring to your business outside their core competency in mathematics.

As we have seen in the previous parts (1, 2, 3) of this series, professional mathematicians are able to think about complicated problems in very structured, organized and methodical ways. These problems occur in two flavors: those which require highly technical knowledge, and those which don’t.

For instance, designing a drug to cure cancer requires a highly technical knowledge that mathematicians do not have. Yes, they could acquire it, but it obviously takes years, and other people are much more competent on the market place.

Understanding how your industry is evolving, what it may look like 20 years from now, how to reorganized your company to reach certain goals, how to improve a workflow, these are problems that can be very complicated, yet sometimes require more good thinking than technical expertise.

In some aspects, professional mathematicians have abilities comparable to the best MBAs, plus much more powerful quantitative and scientific skills, much more versatile skills, and higher conceptual level of thinking. But they have not gone through the case studies. So, they lack the business language; they lack the experience that gives context. That allow them to bring a fresh and non-conventional look at your problem. Thus, if you need to differentiate yourself from your competitors, they are good hires.

Can they do M&A like MBAs? Well, give them a month to learn some basic methodology, and they will do very well. For them, the math is really easy! But they will probably be drawn by the less mechanical parts of M&A, the non-financial ones, the possible synergies, and how to make them happening.

Mathematicians may be helpful to handle problems that integrates a lot of information. This is typical of business and organizational problems, where a lot of variables are to be considered because they touch a lot of people, companies, industries. These problems often require to look at many facets of a goal, or the many ways to achieve it. Mathematicians’ ability at designing solutions out of the box may help you.

But beware that because they look at things in a very scientific way, mathematicians often differ from these many consultants and experts who have the answer. Most mathematicians, most serious scientists, acknowledge that they do not know. They do not see it as a problem, because their job is to come up with solutions of problems that nobody knows how to solve.

As a business person used to talk to utmost confident vendors who have solution to everything, mathematicians’ demeanor and way of talking may make you uncomfortable. Ask them, “how will you tackle my problem?” The likely answer is: I don’t know! Maybe it will be followed by “I will study it first”… And indeed, it will be studied first, to understand what is needed, and come up with a solution that works for you and may not work for your competitor, or a solution that work for everyone in the industry and that you will be able to monetize in a spectacular way.

As we have seen in part 3, professional mathematicians are often good at vision, strategy, leadership. Thus, if you need some general manager that can run chunk of your corporation, they are good candidates. However, you will need to give them 3 to 6 months of training to acquire the business knowledge that they may not have. To give them that knowledge, integrate them with the various teams for few weeks, and given them access to people who can educate them. They are much willing to learn. Think of the mathematicians you hire for that purpose as long term investment. It will pay well.

Why should a professional mathematician work for you?

A mathematician already working for a company is like any other potential employee. Bring an interesting position, a competitive salary, and you may hire that person.

Those I want to talk about are the professional mathematicians who work in universities or research labs, who are not already working for corporations.

The ivory tower is a really nice tower! And in the higher floor, life is good! Why leaving it?

There are several reasons, depending on your career stage.

While there is a great convenience to associate academia with an ivory tower, this is a misleading analogy, because an ivory tower is a single building, while there are many universities out there. But not that many. If the US has over 5,000 colleges and universities, nearly all employing professors of mathematics, the professional mathematicians I am talking about cluster in the top 50 or so mathematics departments in the country. Each year, about 1,200 PhD candidates earn their doctorate in mathematics, probably half of them aspiring to get one of the 100 positions in these top 50 mathematics departments. A position may easily attracts 400 candidates.

This has 2 implications:

That second implication is essential to understand. Some talents are stuck in a specific geographical area because of family constraints, and could otherwise have succeeded in getting an excellent academic position. These are outstanding candidates to hire, and may be be the best hire you will ever do in your career – I know, I hired such a person!

Some young mathematicians also may realize that while they enjoy mathematics, they do not enjoy part of the academic life: teaching, publishing, committee work… and therefore seek work a different career.

Senior mathematicians have often different motivations. They made it, got tenure, published, are well regarded. Some may want to spend some time in business but not necessarily all their time. If your company is flexible, long term consulting relationship is an option, and so may be part time employment.

Some may also have stacked up enough for their retirement, and with the freedom that financial security affords, just follow their curiosity and try something else.

You may also attract them with a great mathematical challenges. But be realistic: university professors can set their own agenda, go on their own pace, run their lives with considerable freedom. Why would they accept more constraints to basically do the same intellectual activity? That means that your project has to be really interesting for them to join your company.

But the main motivation may also be a challenge that matches their non-mathematical skills described in parts 2 and 3. After 20 or 30 years successful at doing something, some mathematicians are or would be happy to try something else. A sabbatical year may be a great way to try without too much commitment on both sides. Conclusion

Businesses seldom understand what mathematicians can do outside mathematics, and how valuable they can be. Conversely, mathematicians are not sufficiently aware of what they can bring outside their core expertise.

We can leave it as is, corporations passing on talents, mathematicians passing on opportunities.

We can also try to make progress and create synergies. It requires courage and willingness to try on both sides.

What I can say, both as someone who crossed the river and someone who helped others to cross it, is that the journey has been worth it, and successful. It has transformed me, and to some extent transformed the corporations I worked for and the people I worked with, all in a good way.

You hesitate?

As a company, reach out to mathematicians, and as a mathematician, reach out to businesses.

Try it! You never know!